“Yeah, The Gaslight Anthem, they’re like… Springsteen but with more balls,” I explained to my parents, using the go-to reference. Later I mentioned the gig to a friend, “They’re a bit like The Killers, but with balls.” Maybe my comparisons didn’t exactly hit the nail on the head, but as I watched the four heartland punk-rockers swagger off the stage, I knew I’d got one thing right: balls. Or, to be less brash, backbone. Bottle. Boldness. The kind of devil-may-care courage that gets an audience of reserved Czechs bopping about to fast-paced, unapologetic punk, then stops them in their tracks with sudden cut-time vulnerability. Sure, the catchy choruses and chunky riffs gave the gig full-body, but it was the moments where the instrumentation dropped away and left the audience in free-fall, the catch in vocalist Brian Fallon’s voice as he stepped into the void, and the starkly poetic lyrics that gave the night its soul.
As I walked into the iconic Roxy – an intimate club with a hard-earned place in Czech music history – the venue was already buzzing with punk rock vibes courtesy of The Scandals. The four-piece filled the space with chugging riffs and barking vocals as the audience amassed. They also set a laid-back, light-hearted tone for the entire gig with gentle mockery of their tour-mates and New-Jersey neighbours.
The main attraction did nothing to dispel this intimate, low-key scene, stepping onto the stage and taking up their instruments without any backing track or dramatic lighting – a surprisingly humble entrance for a band with such international acclaim. The music was more than able to speak for itself through a stomping 28-song set. Despite the tour’s support of 2014’s Get Hurt, only a couple of tracks from the album were featured. Of these, Helter Skeleton was the catchiest, its raw and roaring verses settling into contemplative choruses. The rest of the set veered away from this newer, less typical material and focused on the familiar americana tropes of The Gaslight Anthem’s eight-year recording history.
Toward the end of the night, Fallon joked that he’d written the setlist late the night before, and apologized for the number of slow, sad tracks included. Aside from the laudable rarity of a modern band writing unique set-lists for each show, there was certainly a lot to say for the reflective material represented – even a surprisingly toned-down, acoustic version of Great Expectations. However, these somber moments were adequately balanced out by the high-octane shout-along choruses of classics such as 45, The Patient Ferris Wheel, The Backseat and Wooderson. These gutsier numbers were held tight by drummer Benny Horowitz, who matched fierce pounding with subtly nuanced fills and sudden tempo changes, an expression of maniacal enjoyment on his face.
The band’s broad range of influences was well-represented throughout, with lyrical snippets from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and the Replacements skillfully woven into original songs, as well as a cover version of The Misfits’ Astro Zombies and even an homage to the band’s most talked-about inspiration. In light of Fallon’s increasing irritation at being asked to do Springsteen covers, it was quite an honor that the band willingly gave us a soulful cocktail of The Boss’s I’m on Fire, mixed with their own Red at Night. However, it was the band’s own tales of everyday tragedy and life-goes-on laments (as well as a lot of radios, diners and classic cars) that kept me hooked. I found myself wailing along to Even Cowgirls Get the Blues with particular relish, caught up in Alex Rosamilia’s dirty driving riff and the furious chorus, celebrating the pleasures and pitfalls of not growing up.
This Peter-Pan-esque disregard for maturity could be seen elsewhere on the stage, where in-jokes ran rife. Rosamilia’s amp was topped with a series of Skeletor action figures, lined up neatly in size order. At one heated point in the music, a Skeletor was knocked from his throne and immediately replaced by a watchful roadie. Similarly, I nearly choked on my beer when the Grim Reaper ran onstage to play a woodblock during an instrumental segment, disappearing just as quickly. Most pervasively comical, however, was Brian Fallon’s self-consciously awkward stream-of-consciousness chatter, warmly mocking the American culture from which his songs have drawn so much.
Nearly two albums worth of powerful material and a lot of disjointed banter later, I left the Roxy with a feeling of catharsis (as well as a strange urge to drink whiskey and watch fireworks from the back of a flatbed truck). The iconic woes and wonders of The Gaslight Anthem’s world are not ones I have ever experienced, but they were presented so earnestly and infectiously through punk tenacity and folkish tenderness that by the end of the night, I felt they had told my story.